DAMASCUS, Syria -- A peace agreement with Israel is seen by Syrians as a question of "when," not "if," despite the sniping rhetoric between the two countries.
Conversations with diplomats, academics and random Syrians in two cities indicate that a pact between the mutually suspicious nations is widely seen as a certainty here. The only unresolved matter is how soon.
"Everyone is preoccupied with a timetable," said one diplomat. "Will it be before the end of the year? Everybody's guessing."
Such public sentiment is extraordinary in a state that has reviled Israel for 45 years and among a people whose paranoia about Jews and Israeli expansionism cannot be overestimated.
"The whole world has changed, and we must arrive at the reality," said Souhail Zakkar, a history professor at the University of Damascus. "I would not receive an Israeli in my house. It's too hard for me. But probably my son will do that."
Some worry public opinion in Syria is overly optimistic. Significant hurdles remain before Israel and Syria sign a peace plan.
But even the increasingly tough talk from both sides, and the warning from Damascus this week that it might boycott the next round of the Mideast peace talks, are seen by Syrians as posturing for a better negotiating position.
"Everybody is dancing around right now," said a Syrian author, who asked not to be identified. "But they'll end up as partners."
Syria wants complete return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel wants guaranteed security on its northern border and a peace treaty that includes formal recognition, open borders and trade.
The tempo of diplomatic efforts this week by the United States is seen as evidence that Syria's strategy is paying off. Dennis Ross, the U.S. diplomat coordinating the peace talks, is in the Middle East, and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher is expected to make another round of shuttle diplomacy next month.
Damascus sees these moves as a U.S. attempt to put pressure on Israel not to slow down negotiations with Syria.
"The American administration is showing seriousness about pushing the process forward," said an editorial Monday in the state-run Syrian Times, offering rare praise for U.S efforts.
Attention turned to negotiations with Syria after Israel signed an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Sept. 13.
But prospects for quick agreement, which had seemed promising just a few months earlier, worsened as leaders of both countries seemed to backpedal.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin opened with harsh criticism Syria and then acknowledged that his purpose was to slow negotiations. He said the Israeli public could not so soon absorb another pact requiring concessions.
Syria stung by PLO talks
Syrian President Hafez el Assad returned the verbal fire and hinted that Syria could undermine the Palestinian agreement if it were not included in a deal. Stung by the secret negotiations carried out by Palestinians, Mr. Assad has led the sustained criticism in Syria of the Israeli-PLO deal.
Syria lost its financial and military benefactor with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Estimates of how much it spends on its army range from 60 percent to 80 percent of the budget, and it cannot afford to keep up with Israel's U.S.-fed military. Syria's domestic economy badly needs capital and equipment from the West.
Israel realizes Syria's prominent role in the Arab world makes it a mandatory partner if the Jewish state is to have a stable peace with its neighbors. It sees Syria as the key to controlling militants and rejectionist Palestinians who periodically draw Israeli blood along the southern Lebanon border.
The difficulty will be in the details of a peace agreement. Mr. Rabin will face a storm of opposition if he returns all of the Golan Heights overlooking northern Israel. But Syria demands nothing less.
Fearful of full embrace
And Mr. Assad, always mindful of the assassination of Anwar el Sadat after the Egyptian president signed a peace with Israel, is fearful of opening his arms to fully embrace Israel, as the Israelis demand.
"You have three generations of Syrians who have been brought up in a highly politicized, highly propagandized system that always talked about the Zionist aggressor," said a Western observer.
"There may be a general acceptance that peace will come. But to them it means getting the Golan Heights back," he said. "It doesn't mean El Al [Israel's national airline] landing in Damascus and a bunch of Israeli tourists wandering around the Souk Hamadeih."
But slow changes are taking place. Syrian newspapers now mention Israel rather than the "Zionist occupier." They quote Israeli officials and only during occasional fits of pique return to their descriptions of those officials as "American lackeys."
"It's a change," acknowledged Walid Shehadeh, editor of the Syrian Times. "The tone in my newspaper and other Syrian newspapers has changed because of the peace process."
Miffed at Palestinians
Syria remains miffed at the Palestinians for leaving them in a weaker bargaining position.
Throughout the two years of the formal peace talks, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians had vowed their best strategy was to insist on an agreement by Israel with all the Arabs, or none would sign. The PLO's clandestine bargaining undermined that.
"Nobody should expect us to raise the banners of joy over a secret agreement concluded behind our backs," Mr. Assad said in an interview Sept. 30 with the Public Broadcasting System.
Syria has rejected Mr. Rabin's suggestion that the Washington peace talks be abandoned in favor of direct talks, such as those that were held with the Palestinians.
To do that would weaken the influence of the United States in the process, and for now Syria is pinning its hopes on U.S. intervention.
"I don't think the Americans will be content to let the peace process collapse," said Mr. Shehadeh. "There must come a time when the process ends, and ends positively."